LOWELL, Mass. -- It sounds cliche, but it felt like a heavyweight prize fight.
Andover and Central Catholic walked into an almost-packed Tsongas Center Friday night knowing everything there is to know about each other. Each team was well aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses and knew how to exploit them. Each team threw its share of metaphorical punches and had to withstand counterpunches from the other.
In the end, Central Catholic survived with a 59-53 victory to move on to an even bigger stage: a game against Catholic Memorial Monday, at TD Garden, for the right to be called Division 1 Eastern Massachusetts champions.
Saturday was the sixth time in eight years Central played in the Division 1 North sectional final and its fourth time winning.
The first half was like a normal Central vs. Andover game with each team throwing jabs at the other, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. The action was back and forth with each team holding the lead.
Central went into halftime up 29-23, but Andover came out after the break throwing its best punches. It started the third quarter on an 8-0 run and pushed its run up to 17-3 before Tyler Nelson hit a three to make it 38-35.
“You look at the guys in the huddle and say pick your head up and say we’re going to be fine,” said Central Catholic coach Rick Nault. “They trust each other. They trust what we do and how hard we work. It’s not something magical that happens. It’s the kids on the floor who have to go out and play. I can call every play in the book, but they still have to play and they did that. I’m proud of them.”
Nelson had what those in the basketball world call a "heat check" in the second half. He had only five points at halftime on a runner from the right baseline and a three-pointer on top of that. In the second half, he exploded for 15 points in the second, all coming from three-pointers.
Each time, he seemingly went further and further behind the arc, just to see if he could do it. During one sequence, he caught the ball and set up for a straightaway three. He saw a defender charging from his left, so he up-faked the defender off his feet and slid around the attempted block. He attempted a three a few steps closer, but missed. Kevin Fernandez came down with the rebound and sent it back out to Nelson, who spotted up for another three and this time hit it.
“I took some deep shots today,” said Nelson (20 points, 5 rebounds). “I just didn’t have a conscience. I’ve gotta take it when I’m open. I have to make big plays for my team, whether it’s taking deep threes, or getting the ball to Nick (Cambio, 13 points, 7 rebounds), or distributing. I did a good job of that in the first half and then got my shot later on in the second half.”
Dave Giribaldi, Andover’s sometimes erratic junior guard, finished the game with 19 points, including four 3-pointers.
Central tied the game at 43 after a Nelson trey with 5:30 left in the game. Another three on the ensuing possession and a dump off pass from Nelson to Cambio in transition put Central up 5 and forced Andover to call a timeout.
Andover’s Ben Brown hit a three coming out of the timeout, but Nelson hit another three to answer back. EJ Perry, the team’s freshman shooting guard, hit a three to make it 54-53 with two minutes to go.
As the clock wound down, Andover kept throwing punches trying to knock Central down. However, it kept taking the punches and punching back harder. In the end, Central Catholic won in a close decision but at this point in the season, a win is all that matters and it does not matter how you get it.
Emotions run high: Nault is a fiery coach to say the least. During the regular season, when the gymnasiums are smaller than the Tsongas Center, his yell can sometimes be heard above everything else. He will talk to referees and voice his displeasure with calls or lack of calls but he almost never acts out to the point where it hurts his team.
Saturday he was called for a rare technical foul immediately following a play in the game. There was a loose ball scrum in front of the Central bench and Nault felt like his player had control of the ball. He emphatically signaled and called for timeout to avoid a potential jump ball call. The nearest referee felt he was being excessive and called the Central coach for a technical.
Giribaldi made one of the ensuing two free throws, so the damage was minimized.
“I thought our guy had possession of the ball and I screamed for timeout,” said Nault. “I was emphatic, ‘Timeout! Timeout! Timeout!’ He T’d me up. I didn’t swear at him. I didn’t feel like I was over the line. He felt I was excessive. It is what is is. I feel like I coach better from sitting on the bench.”
All too familiar: Saturday was the fourth time this season Central and Andover have played each other. Andover beat Central twice already coming into Saturday, the most recent being a 76-65 victory on Feb. 19. There is not much, if anything, either team could throw at each other they had not seen before. Every team has tried some kind of special defense to contain Tyler Nelson, so Central has become pretty well-versed in how to beat certain defensive formations.
Nothing caught Central by surprise Saturday.
“We saw the box-and-one, we saw the triangle and two,” said Nault. “We knew they were going to press us a little bit, and they tried to do that. We prepared for it all week. I felt like we were ready. I was worried about our emotion, because when it’s Central-Andover, the emotions run out of control some times. I thought we did a great job of keeping our emotions in check.”
The game was initially delayed almost 30 extra minutes in an attempt to allow fans enough time to purchase tickets at the entrance of the arena and find a seat before the game started. This lead to a larger than usual crowd that neither team was used to playing in front of. A majority of the seats were filled in the arena minutes before tipoff.
Because of the Tsongas Center’s proximity to both Lawrence and Andover, Saturday became a de facto home game for both teams. The players were able to stop and recognize the enormity of the situation during warmups.
“When we got into the tunnel right before the game started I looked out into the crowd and the whole Tsongas was full,” said Aaron Hall (13 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks). “It was crazy. It didn’t have that last year, but it just got me excited to play with that crowd.”
Next up -- CM: Now comes arguably the most challenging portion of Central’s entire season. After having the nightcap on Saturday, it has only Sunday to practice before it heads to the TD Garden in Boston to play the Division 1 South champion Catholic Memorial.
Catholic Memorial is a difficult matchup for any team in the state, but it becomes exponentially more difficult when you not played them before in a season and have only seen them once through scouting. Add in only one day to actively prepare to play and Monday is shaping up to be a tall task for Central.
“They’re a great team, they score the basketball,” said Nelson. “They average like 80 something points a game. They can score from every position. They have shooters, a great point guard that I used to play AAU with. They’re just a great team and we’re going to have to bring our A-game on Monday.”
Catholic Memorial has spent the entire season inside the Top 10 of the ESPN Boston Boys’ Basketball Top 25 poll.